Giggles, Gasps as Public Views Report


It was a Jackie Collins novel writ large, and when Americans got a load--or more likely a download--of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's sordid case against the president, they giggled and groaned and tried to get comfortable with it all.

But by the end of the day, it was still unclear whose, if anyone's, mind was changed by the public talk of private acts and potentially larger crimes.

From a topless dancer in Atlanta to a computer analyst in Laguna Beach, there was evidence of a cultural event--with absolute indifference, utter fascination and too much information.

Sonya Prather, a part-time student and topless dancer, spent most of Friday afternoon mesmerized by television stories about the Starr report. By the time she got to work at Atlanta's Gold Club, she was conversant in its most salacious details.

"[Clinton] is the kind of guy who comes into the club, gets a private gold room and has 20 women dance for him," she said, making a nauseated face. "I don't think he's moral or that his decisions are well thought out." A fallen-away Clinton supporter, she predicts he'll resign.

And Lisa Roden, working the shoe checkout counter at a Pasadena, Texas, bowling alley, south of Houston, saw the Starr report as evidence that a big-shot, yes, even the president, can be just like the rest of us.

Admitting with a wicked laugh she wants to know the "kind of kinky things he's up to," she vowed not to judge him for it.

"The president is supposed to be a role model, sort of a perfect person, you know? Well, it turns out he ain't no more perfect than the rest of us."

But Oanh Nguyen, 25, a computer systems manager for a Laguna Beach company, was fascinated by the tidbits. He knew the report was on the Web but wasn't paying attention until he heard of Monica S. Lewinsky's claim that the president used a cigar in a sex act.

Back at the bowling lanes in Texas, however, several people were resisting the drama in Washington, instead focusing on news of the rain and floods from Tropical Storm Frances.

"I grew up in a time when your sex life was personal, and I still cling to that notion," said Joyce Coffman, 76, a retired bank teller, watching her granddaughter bowl. "I don't need to know the details that are coming out. It won't change my mind about him. Clinton is a good president. I don't connect what he does as president with what he does with his sex life."

Ed Ginter, a retired engineer who lives in Fullerton, said he and his wife, committed Democrats both, assiduously avoided watching the news Friday, disappointed and saddened by the whole thing.

"What's going to happen is going to happen, and watching it happen won't make any difference," Ginter, 72, said. "I am saddened, just that the country is suffering as a result of the president's alleged infidelity and attempt to cover it up, if in fact that's what the Starr report is going to indicate."

At Wednesday's Cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica--a coffee bar with one Internet port, cafe customers clucked their tongues disapprovingly as they read the one screen. They devoured such new details as the alleged frequency of the sexual encounters President Clinton had with Lewinsky, the number of people Lewinsky told of the affair, including her psychologist.

"Scary," said one.

"Real-life drama," said another.

"Pure soap opera," cooed a third.

One woman put her hand to her mouth and said that reading the report felt like an invasion of privacy, like reading privy details from someone's long-hidden diary.

Deadpanned manager Robin Zielan: "His life's an open book, now."

Customer John Frascati was stunned by the nation's obsession with the sex scandal. "Do you want the president to be impeached for having a nice Easter Sunday?" he asked, referring to Lewinsky's claim that one of her encounter's took place that day.

When the choice was between the gambling tables at a Sparks, Nev., hotel-casino and taking in the prurient details in the Starr report, some couples split up. Several gamblers reported that their spouses were still in their rooms upstairs, unable to leave their television sets as more details were becoming available.

"He's a man and men are stupid about sex, and there's no man more stupid than an older man with a younger woman," said John Studer, a plumber from Sacramento. "That's all Starr found. Maybe Starr is shocked but I don't think many other people are."

Jeri Wynn, a housewife from San Bruno, Calif., disagreed. "He's the president, and he now he's a liar and a cheat. I'm shocked. He's got to go."

Not everyone, however, was drawn to the controversy. When asked about the Starr report, one Santa Monica cybercafe worker said: "Is that some kind of horoscope or something?"

The independent counsel's report also failed to cause a stir at the office of Felicia Helf, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Coalition for Health Education in Santa Ana.

"I haven't heard anything about it. I haven't even heard that word--Starr," said Helf, 27, of Tustin. "I haven't really followed it that closely. We already kind of know what the details are. I don't need to hear any more."

And Ralph Pugo, who runs a human resource consulting firm in Orange County, was already fed up with this latest chapter of Starr versus the president.

"I think it's more of a morbid fascination at this point," said Pugo. "Up until two weeks ago, I was following it pretty closely. Then I said: 'What am I doing? I don't have time for this.' "

Wall Street opened climbing on Clinton's early morning words of apologies to a prayer breakfast, and remained calm in the face of political chaos.

Brian S. Wesbury, chief economist at the Chicago investment bank of Griffin, Kubik, Stephens & Thompson, said the market's reaction was a case of "sell the rumor, buy the fact." Once traders decided there were no significant new negatives, the market had what is called a "relief rally."

But these opinions and dozens of opinion surveys likely to be taken in the weeks ahead are expected to resonate in Washington.

"When the public starts responding, Congress will take its cue," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.). "We are always followers."

Times staff writers John Glionna, Greg Hernandez, Esther Schrader, Megan Garvey and Antonio Olivo in Los Angeles; Tony Perry in Sparks, Nev.; J.R. Moehringer in Atlanta; Thomas Mulligan in New York; and Edwin Chen in Washington; Times researcher Lianne Hart in Pasadena, Texas; and Times correspondents Steve Carney and Chris Ceballos in Orange County contributed to this story.

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